3:05pm

Mon January 31, 2011
Music News

Conor Oberst Leads Immigration Law Protest In Song

Originally published on Mon January 31, 2011 4:19 pm

Conor Oberst has had a busy 10 years. He's released five albums with Bright Eyes and two solo roots-rock records, and has worked on a number of side projects. But he says taking a political stand is new to him.

"It's not something I did when I first started making music," Oberst says. "It's something I grew into the more I became aware of the world and what power musicians and public figures have. I don't do it lightly. It's not something I enjoy doing, but I feel compelled to do it."

Oberst has been outspoken about immigration laws in the country, and it became personal when one such law was proposed just 30 miles west of his hometown of Omaha, Neb.

Since 2008, citizens of the small eastern Nebraska city of Fremont have been trying to get a law on the books that would ban renting to or hiring undocumented workers. In the 1990s, the city became home to two meatpacking plants, which attracted Hispanic immigrant workers. Proponents of the ordinance say the town of about 25,000 has seen an increase in costs for law enforcement and schools.

"We have people that are here. We don't know their medical backgrounds; we don't know their criminal backgrounds, and that makes me nervous," says State Sen. Charlie Jannsen of Fremont. "I have two small children. They're people that could be handling my children and your children and Nebraska children, and we don't know anything about these people."

Jannsen introduced a proposal for Nebraska similar to Arizona's controversial Arizona immigration law. The city of Fremont is embroiled in two federal lawsuits over its own ordinance, which passed as a ballot referendum last year. To raise awareness of the issue, Oberst staged a 14-band benefit concert last summer on a street in his hometown. Proceeds from the sold-out show went to the ACLU, one of the groups that have sued the city over the ordinance.

The Power Of 'This Land Is Your Land'

On the bill that night were Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, a folk duo that drove from California. After a sing-along of the classic "This Land Is Your Land," Rawlings told the audience about buying a newspaper on the way to the gig.

"I saw Conor was on the cover of the paper," Rawlings said at the concert. "And then there was another woman who was a radio talk show host, and she said when musicians try to say things or try to be political in any way that they sound silly. I don't know. I don't think that Woody Guthrie was a silly man, and I don't think 'This Land Is Your Land' is a silly song. And I have a feeling people are going to be singing 'This Land Is Your Land' long after they forgot about that radio host and her professional political opinions."

Whether or not musicians have the ability to shape society's views is debatable. University of Nebraska, Lincoln music professor Scott Anderson has studied protest music and teaches a class on the subject. He says music can have an impact on society, and that you can look beyond protest songs to find how great that impact can be.

"Look at the power that Elvis Presley, The Beatles, the Stones — look at the power these artists had at shaping culture and the way we think about things," Anderson says.

One People, One Nation

But it was clear from the fans who came to Omaha from around the country that they were there primarily for the music.

"I really didn't care," says Clay Swanson of Arlington, Iowa. "I love these bands — loved them since I was a little kid. I saw Conor Oberst on the news, and he said a thing that rang true: that is, that being an immigrant is the most American thing you can be, and that's true. It is."

The band most of the people came to see was Oberst's sociopolitical punk group Desaparacidos, which hadn't performed together for eight years.

During the band's last song of the night, when Oberst made clear his position on the Fremont ordinance, even the most oblivious fans cheered him on.

"We want to say to our Latino brothers and sisters that we stand with you in solidarity, and when your dignity is compromised, our dignity is compromised," Oberst said at the concert. "When your rights are defiled, our rights are defiled. We are one people, we are one nation, and we will not let these bigoted crazy maniacs take our country from us. So are you with me? Are you with me?"

For a moment they joined him in his outrage. As for the new Bright Eyes album, The People's Key, there are no overt political messages, but rather a general theme of acceptance and unity.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The band Bright Eyes is a favorite of indie-rock fans in the past decade. It has sold millions of records. Bright Eyes' driving force is Conor Oberst. He's taken on a new role now, of political activist.

From member station NET Radio in Nebraska, Clay Masters reports.

CLAY MASTERS: Conor Oberst has had a busy 10 years. He's released five albums with Bright Eyes, two solo roots-rock albums, and has worked on a number of side projects. But he says taking a stand is something new to him.

Mr. CONOR OBERST (Musician): What I do is play music and, you know, it's not something I did when I first started making music. It's something, I guess, I grew into the more I became aware of the world and what power musicians and public figures have. I don't do it lightly. It's not something I enjoy -necessarily - doing, but I feel compelled to do it.

MASTERS: Oberst has been outspoken about immigration laws in the country, and it became personal when one showed up just 30 miles west of his hometown of Omaha. Since 2008, citizens of the small eastern Nebraska city of Fremont have been trying to get a law on the books that would ban renting to or hiring undocumented workers.

In the 1990s, the city became home to two meat-packing plants that attracted Hispanic immigrant workers. Proponents of the ordinance say the town of about 25,000 has seen an increase in costs for law enforcement and schools.

State Senator Charlie Janssen, of Fremont, goes a little farther.

State Senator CHARLIE JANSSEN (Nebraska): We have people that are here - we don't know their medical backgrounds, we don't know - especially - their criminal backgrounds, and that makes me nervous. I have two small children. They're people that could be handling my children, your children...

MASTERS: Janssen has introduced a proposal for Nebraska similar to the controversial Arizona immigration law. The city of Fremont is embroiled in two federal lawsuits over its own ordinance, which passed as a ballot referendum last year.

To raise awareness about this, Conor Oberst staged a massive, 14-band benefit concert last summer on a street in his hometown. Proceeds from the sold-out show went to the ACLU, one of the groups that have sued the city over the ordinance.

Mr. OBERST: I mean it from the bottom of my heart. It means so much that you guys came here tonight, and I want to thank all the bands that are playing tonight.

MASTERS: On the bill that night were Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, a folk duo that drove from California. After a sing-along of the classic "This Land is Your Land," Dave Rawlings told the audience about buying a paper on the way to the gig.

Mr. DAVE RAWLINGS (Musician): And I saw Conor was on the cover of the paper.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RAWLINGS: And then there was another woman who's a talk-show host or like, a radio talk host. And you know, she said that when musicians try to be political in any way, that they sound silly.

And I don't know. I mean, I don't think that Woody Guthrie was a silly man, and I don't think that "This Land is Your Land" is a silly song.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RAWLINGS: And I have a feeling people are going to be singing "This Land is Your Land" long after they've forgotten that radio host and her professional political opinions.

(Soundbite of song, "This Land is Your Land")

Mr. RAWLINGS: (Singing) As I was walking that ribbon of highway, I saw above me that endless skyway. I saw below me that golden valley. This land was made for you and me.

MASTERS: Whether or not musicians have the ability to shape society's views is debatable. University of Nebraska-Lincoln music professor Scott Anderson has studied protest music, and teaches a class on the subject. He says music can have an impact on society, and you can look beyond protest songs to find how great that impact can be.

Mr. SCOTT ANDERSON (Music Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln): Look at the power that Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones - just keep going down the list - look at the power these artists have had in shaping culture, and in shaping the way we think about things.

MASTERS: But it was clear from the fans that came to Omaha from around the country that they were there primarily for the music.

Ms. MAUREEN O'BRIEN: Maureen O'Brien, Omaha, Nebraska.

MASTERS: Do you know anything about the Fremont ordinance?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Not really. No, I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CLAY SWANSON: Clay Swanson, I'm from Arlington, Iowa.

MASTERS: Do you care?

Mr. SWANSON: I didn't really care. Like, I love these bands, loved them since I was a little kid. And I saw Conor Oberst on the news, and he said a thing that really rang true. I thought being an immigrant is the most American thing that you can do - because it is.

MASTERS: The band that most of the people came to see was Oberst's sociopolitical punk group Desaparacidos, which hadn't performed together for eight years.

(Soundbite of song, "Greater Omaha")

DESAPARACIDOS (Music Group): (Singing) Well, traffic's kind of bad. They're widening Easy Street to fit more SUVs. They're planting baby trees to grow to shady peaks. A little shelter from the sun...

MASTERS: During the band's last song of the night, Oberst made clear his position on the Fremont ordinance, and even the most oblivious fans cheered him on.

Mr. OBERST: We're one people, we are one nation, and we are not letting these bigoted, crazy maniacs take our country from us, all right? So you're with me?

(Soundbite of cheering)

MASTERS: And for a moment, at least, they joined him in his outrage. As for the new Bright Eyes album, there are no overt political messages but rather, a general theme of acceptance and unity.

(Soundbite of song, "Shell Games")

BRIGHT EYES (Music Group): (Singing) Someone gotta share in the load. Oh, here it come that heavy love, I'm never gonna move it alone.

MASTERS: For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters

SIEGEL: Bright Eyes has a new album coming out next week, and you can hear it in its entirety at nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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